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Three Key Medical News Stories: 4th December

Neurons cells concept

Welcome to this week’s medical news stories. In our latest edition, we bring you the healthcare topics that have been under the microscope over the past week.

Joining us this week: artificial neurons, new contraceptives, and cholesterol.

Artificial Neurons

Artificial neurons have been developed to provide new methods for repairing the human body.

Neurons (nerve cells) carry signals to and from the rest of the human body. Scientists at the University of Bath have used a combination of maths, computing and chip design to replicate in a circuit what neurons do naturally. For example, the group have replicated the response of respiratory neurons using bio electronics that are small enough to be implanted. 

What can we learn from this?

Producing artificial neurons that respond to electrical signals from the nervous system has been a long-time goal in medicine. Challenges have included designing the circuits and finding the parameters that make the circuits behave like real neurons. In certain neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, neurons degenerate and die. By transferring the electrical properties of brain cells on to synthetic circuits made of silicone, it may be possible to reverse such disorders.

Question to think about: Discuss the possibility of using this technology to repair damage elsewhere in the body. 

New Contraceptives

A “once-a-month” contraceptive pill has been developed that may give women more choice over their fertility.

A pill that is designed to resist immediate attack from strong acid and remain in the stomach until fully broken down after several weeks. Whilst in the stomach, the new pill will slowly release hormones to prevent pregnancy, much like those currently available.

The new pill uses a star-shaped drug delivery system packaged in a easy-to-swallow dissolvable capsule. Upon reaching the stomach, the star unfolds and begins releasing the hormone housed on its six arms. The star is too big to immediately exit the stomach and will remain there until it can be broken down and excreted. 

What can we learn from this?

The contraceptive pill is used by millions of women globally and should be 99% effective however, studies suggest that nearly half of all users will miss a dose or take the pill at the wrong time. This reduces its efficacy to 91%, meaning that 9 out of every 100 women will get pregnant. At the moment, there are longer lasting contraceptives available, such as injections and coils, however there is currently no monthly alternative. Providing a monthly alternative for the contraceptive pill may produce better results in terms of efficacy.

Question to think about: Discuss the likelihood of a monthly contraceptive pill increasing the effectiveness of using a contraceptive pill to protect against pregnancy.

Cholesterol

Research suggests that cholesterol should be tested in everyone from their mid-twenties.

The comprehensive study looking at the long-term health risks of having too much “bad” cholesterol for decades has suggested that cholesterol levels at this stage of life could be used to predict lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke. This information could help to inform young people about their current health and risk of future disease, and could encourage those with higher levels of unhealthy cholesterol to improve their lifestyle, incorporating more exercise and less unhealthy fats.

What can we learn from this?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in some foods and also produced in the liver. It is required in order to make essential hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone, as well as vitamin D and other compounds. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). LDLs can be dangerous as they can clog the arteries.  

Question to think about: Talk about how you could encourage someone to live a healthier lifestyle, and the sort of information you might provide them with.

Words: Nea Sneddon-Jones

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